From Earth Island Journal – Spring 2012, by Jason Mark
From Rural Pennsylvania to South America, a Global Alliance is Promoting the Idea that Ecosystems Have Intrinsic Rights
For the complete article visit Earth Island Institute Spring 2012
Excerpts from the article:
Tamaqua Borough – First Ordinance
Cathy Miorelli doesn’t think of herself as an environmentalist. When Miorelli decided to run for the city council of Tamaqua Borough – a small town in central Pennsylvania where she has lived her entire life – she didn’t have any sort of eco-agenda. It was 2004, and the hottest controversy in Tamaqua involved a proposal by an outside company to dump sewage sludge and coal fly ash into abandoned mining pits on the edge of town. But the main issue on Miorelli’s mind was creating more transparent governance on the council, which she says had long been dominated by an old boys’ network. “I was just concerned about everything overall, not really so much the environment,” says Miorelli, who has worked for 16 years as the nurse at the Tamaqua high school. “You know, I didn’t run on any kind of platform, saying that I was going to change the world here or anything.”
She did change the world, though. Halfway through her one-term stint on the council, Miorelli spearheaded the passage of an anti-sewage sludge ordinance that included a provision recognizing the rights of “natural communities” to flourish – the first law of its kind in the world. The Tamaqua Borough ordinance inspired dozens of other communities in Vermont, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania – including the city of Pittsburgh – to adopt similar rights of nature laws. Those ordinances then helped influence the people of Ecuador to put legal rights for ecosystems in that country’s new constitution. The idea that nature, just like people, possesses inalienable rights has percolated up to the United Nations, which has considered a proposal to adopt a “Charter on the Rights of Mother Nature.”
Miorelli finds it all unbelievable. “It’s awesome, really. I just kind of laugh about it, because it’s kind of amazing,” she says. “At the time it didn’t seem like that big of a deal. Like, why wouldn’t we give rights to nature?”
Inspired by Cormac Cullinan’s Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice
CELDF’s Tamaqua ordinance was inspired partly by the work of a South African attorney named Cormac Cullinan. His 2002 book, Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice, argues that it is time to make a new leap in our conception of rights and recognize that nature enjoys the right to flourish. Cullinan’s argument goes like this: By mere virtue of its existence, nature has intrinsic rights; just as we have proclaimed inalienable rights for ourselves, so too, logically, all other beings must have inherent rights. And because the “proper functioning of the Earth community is essential to human life,” Cullinan writes, our rights are inseparable from the rest of the biosphere. “The inherent rights and freedoms of all beings … are ultimately indivisible,” he argues.
This idea is not original. The judges of ancient Rome, for example, recognized that certain biological principles – jus naturale, in Latin – existed independently of the laws of men. Many Eastern religions simply assume the interconnectedness of all of nature’s elements, including humans. The Indigenous cultures of the Americas imagine the universe as a “circle of life,” an arrangement that doesn’t allow for any anthropocentrism.
The dominance of Western Enlightenment thinking (which views humans and nature as separate and apart) marginalized such biocentric worldviews. Over time, though, some thinkers have tried to get industrial societies to consider that humans do have obligations to other beings.
In the nineteenth century an animal rights movement evolved to fight against vivisection and unnecessary cruelty to animals. A few visionaries went further and floated the idea that even trees had value in and of themselves. “Nature’s object in making animals and plants might possibly be first of all the happiness of each one of them, not the creation of all for the happiness of one,” John Muir wrote. In the early twentieth century, the emerging science of ecology made it more difficult to imagine humanity as apart from natural communities. Forester Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic” set a new standard for evaluating the morality of our behavior toward the environment. An action is right, he wrote in A Sand County Almanac, “when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
The explosion of environmental awareness in the 1970s was accompanied by a new wave of eco-philosophy eager to strike down modern anthropocentrism. In a 1972 lecture Norwegian philosopher and mountain climber Arne Naess coined the term “deep ecology” and said it was time to embrace an “ecological egalitarianism.” That same year, a legal philosopher, Christopher Stone, wrote a now-famous law journal essay, “Should Trees Have Standing?” Stone answered in the affirmative. “The time is already upon us when we may have to consider subordinating some human claims to those of the environment per se,” he wrote.
Bill Twist first heard about the rights of nature concept in 2007 after a colleague attended a CELDF Democracy School. Twist is the co-founder of the Pachamama Alliance, a San Francisco-based NGO that works to defend the Amazon rainforest and the Indigenous communities that live there. Twist’s partners in Ecuador had told him that the new president, Rafael Correa, was about to call a convention to rewrite Ecuador’s constitution. Twist immediately recognized an opportunity: Here was a chance to enshrine the rights of nature concept at the highest level of a nation’s government.
He called Thomas Linzey to propose the idea. The CELDF founder was hesitant, Twist says. He didn’t want to go on a wild goose chase. Linzey told Twist that finding some person of influence in Ecuador to champion the rights of nature would be essential for success.
The champion that Twist and his Ecuadorian partners found was an unlikely ally. Alberto Acosta had been picked to be Rafael Correa’s minister of energy and mines, a powerful position in a nation with significant oil and mineral resources. Acosta, a trained economist, was not known as an environmentalist. But he was popular: He had received the most votes in the election to seat the constitutional assembly, and was quickly chosen to be the convention’s president. And, most important, the rights of nature idea was not new to him.
“When we got to Alberto Acosta, he already had some documents about rights of nature, he was aware of the situation, so we didn’t need to start all over with him,” remembers Natalia Greene, a campaigner at the Quito-based Fundación Pachamama. But even with Acosta’s support, members of the constitutional assembly were skeptical. “Many of the people in the assembly didn’t know much about the environment in general,” Greene says. “For them, to have a constitution that has a lot of environmental laws was enough.”
CELDF staff played a key role in overcoming the reluctance. Acosta invited Linzey and CELDF associate director Mari Margill to Quito to brief assembly members on the idea. The fact that some local governments in the US had already adopted rights of nature ordinances was especially persuasive. Greene says: “That gave them some grounds to say, ‘We aren’t the first country to do this, there is something done before us.’”
Support from Ecuador’s politically influential Indigenous community was also key. At first, Indigenous groups were leery of including the rights of nature language in the constitution. The whole idea seemed yet another example of industrial society’s arrogance. Nature already had rights, some Indigenous people felt; it wasn’t for humans to “grant” nature anything.
Rights of nature has become an intellectual counterweight to market-driven approaches like carbon trading.
“It also sounded weird to the Indigenous people,” Twist says. “They weren’t in favor of it initially, either. But then they saw what it really was – a skillful way of addressing that we have a legal system that elevates property rights and ignores the existence of natural systems.”
In the draft text “natural systems” was exchanged for Pacha Mama, a Quecha phrase meaning “Mother Earth.” A core element of the constitution now echoed the Indigenous cosmovision and that, Greene says, made it difficult for assembly members to oppose the provision. The final wording of Article 71, read: “Nature, or Pacha Mama, where life is reproduced and occurs, has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.”
In September 2008, two thirds of Ecuadorians voted to approve the new constitution in a national referendum. For the first time, a nation-state had made the health of ecosystems a core element of its governing laws.
The next major boost for the rights of nature idea came in April 2010, when Bolivian president Evo Morales hosted the “The World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth” in the city of Cochabamba. The summit was intended as a response to the formal United Nations-sponsored climate negotiations that had just suffered a meltdown in Copenhagen. The idea was to give civil society groups an opportunity to propose their own solutions for grappling with the climate crisis. The result was the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.
Drafted in part by Cormac Cullinan, the declaration is modeled on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It begins ambitiously – “We, the peoples and nations of Earth” – and goes on to assert that “the rights of each being are limited by the rights of other beings and any conflict between their rights must be resolved in a way that maintains the integrity, balance and health of Mother Earth.” On April 22, Earth Day, the 35,000 people attending the Cochabamba summit adopted the declaration as a kind of clarion call for making a stronger commitment to the natural world.
Several weeks later, Pablo Solon, Bolivia’s UN ambassador, submitted the text of the declaration to the General Assembly, the first step toward getting the international body to adopt it.
Ideas matter. The thought-provoking language in the rights of nature laws has helped to re-frame the debate about how to balance the needs of 7 billion humans against the needs of the rest of the planet’s living communities. At the most recent UN climate summits – in Cancun in 2010 and in Durban last December – members of the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature promoted the idea as an intellectual counterweight to the market-driven approaches (like cap and trade and carbon trading) that have dominated the UN process. At least at the margins, the conversation about our relationship to nature is changing…
Read the complete article at Earth Island Institute Spring 2012